Friday, July 13, 2007

Big deals nobody buys

Beckham and Bonds. These two venerable athletes share the distinction of being part of huge sports stories that people simply don’t care about. Beckham is going to play Major League Soccer which, by global standards, is a misnomer given the fact that the version of professional soccer here in the United States compares to its European counterpart much in the way Arena football compares to the NFL.

Beckham is attracting attention because people are curious as to whether he’ll dominate American soccer the way Michael Jordan would own the court at the local YMCA but the attention will be fleeting. One of two things will happen: he will dominate or he will disappoint. Regardless, people will grow weary of the novelty. It’s unlikely that soccer will ever command more than a niche market here in the states and bringing in global legends won’t change that.

The fact of the matter is that soccer is not a very good spectator sport when compared with the other sports Americans enjoy. It can be monotonous and low scores are the result of many anticlimactic possessions. There’s no question that Americans are conditioned to enjoy more familiar sports. Baseball can be quite boring but it’s much more complex than soccer and every pitch can be exciting when the game is tight. In soccer a margin of victory of just one goal can be the result of a boring, lopsided game. And ties are all too common.

Soccer is a great sport and it is challenging. Players are fantastic athletes who must developed a sense of dexterity most of us can’t even fathom. Soccer can also be a lot of fun to play. But so is bowling. That doesn’t mean anybody wants to watch it on TV. Soccer can produce some outstanding highlights at times but exciting moments are few and far between. The pitch is bigger than a standard American football field, intentional contact is discouraged and the rules certainly favor defense. While soccer is king around the rest of the world it is losing ground to other sports. Basketball has gained international appeal, sports fans in soccer countries are warming up to football and baseball is still huge in Central and South America even though it is no longer the American pastime. Once people become familiar with the intricacies of American sports it seems the American sports become more popular. The more familiar Americans become with soccer the more interested they become in the world series of poker.

So Beckham’s foray into the MLS is big news but it’s falling on deaf ears. Fans will take notice but not nearly as much as the people who forked over all that money expect. As much as everybody would love to see Americans fall in love with soccer, people simply won’t make room in their hearts.

Barry Bonds shook off the rust, found his stroke and has made Hank Aaron’s fall from the record books inevitable. Not only will Bonds hit 755 to tie the record and 756 to break it, by the time the season is over he will be a dozen dingers away from cracking the 800 barrier. A season or two muddling around the AL as a DH for rent will make it possible for the bloated wonder to put the home run title out of A-Rod’s reach for a long time.

The problem is that nobody who has a clue likes Barry. He’s got a healthy throng of idiot fans who simply don’t get it and the handful of people in his camp who seem smart enough to get it simply choose to ignore it. Barry Bonds took steroids. Lots of them. He went from being a wiry free-swinging center fielder to the bubble-headed behemoth he is today over the course of winter. Apologists complain that every time an athlete gets big and strong he gets accused of doping but in Barry’s case he admits that he did take steroids but absolves himself of responsibility by claiming that he didn’t know that he was taking them. Liar.

But even taking the steroids that added a decade of remarkable play to his career out of the equation, Barry Bonds’ assault on 755 would still strike a sour note because of the kind of man he is. We’re talking about a guy who cheated on his wife, cheated on his taxes and hid behind his family when the spotlight glared. Barry Bonds went to a press conference with his son for the sole purpose of using the boy as a prop when people pressed him for answers. If Barry was half the man he claims to be he would have told his kid to stay home so daddy could face the music. Instead he hid behind his kid. Classy.

Bonds has spent a career of alienating his own teammates and rubbing everybody the wrong way. He has struggled to deliver in the post season and his obsession with personal statistical achievements has compromised his ability to make his team better. Barry would rather take a walk than move a runner over with a sacrifice fly. Barry would rather swing for the fences than hit behind the runner to drive him in. Baseball fans can be obsessed with stats but the stats never tell the whole story. The book on Barry is that he is a loser. Always has been, always will be.

People talk about how Barry should be handled. He hasn’t tested positive for steroids in the recently implemented drug test era but it’s clear that the bulk of his numbers came from a bottle. Can he be stricken from the record book? Should he be kept out of the Hall?

Probably not. The record book is about stats so Barry will have his place in it regardless of the allegations. But the Hall of Fame should be different. The balloting is subjective. Some would argue too much so, but that’s where the big picture of a player's career should be taken into account. Instead of looking at stats voters should consider the sum of the player’s career. That includes tangibles such as statistics as well as intangibles such as leadership and disposition. Character has to count for something but unless that player has several titles to his name it never seems to matter to the voters.

Sadly baseball writers don’t like to explain themselves so they hide behind stats. Most will even explain their methodology for analyzing stats to determine a player’s worthiness. Nobody seems willing to take responsibility for making a judgment call. Great players are denied recognition because they fell short of arbitrary milestones such as 3000 hits, 500 home runs or 300 wins. By voters standards a player who lugged a .248 average through a 16 year career to hit 508 home runs is better than a guy who managed to hit .297 with 434 home runs over 14 years.

Defense almost always gets the short shrift in this process because the only stat for defense is fielding percentage and it’s often distorted by a player’s ability. Rangy fielders like Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar get charged for errors because they almost get to balls guys like Cal Ripken Jr. could only dream of touching. So Omar deflects a ball in shallow center and his fielding percentage goes down, but Cal’s stats look good because he stood there and watched it land.

So Barry will get in. After five years nobody will care to debate his association with illegal substances and if it is broached the writers will all play dumb and claim that you can’t quantify the impact those substances had on Bonds’ career. The stats will make for an easy argument and nobody will bring up character issues or those intangibles that Bonds refused to bring to the table. They’ll defend Bonds’ lack of championships by blaming the rest of the team even though Barry was the primary reason the rest of the team wasn’t very good. Then they’ll reverse position and give Derek Jeter a pass because he has rings to overcome his lousy power numbers, suspect defense and low batting average. That’s the only subjective aspect of the voting: which seemingly objective method will be employed by the gutless writers.

Until then we have the inevitable breaking of the record. It’s coming but fans seem numb. That wasn’t the case back when Hank was closing in on 715. Babe Ruth’s record was sacred and the entire nation was on pins and needles wondering when it would fall. Some people hated him but most cheered Hammering Hank on. In spite of our national sense of racism Hank was a guy you had to love. He was consistent, hard working and enduring. He was just a good guy. When he rounded the bases after his historic blast it was two white dopes who ran out on the field to be the first to congratulate him. It was a big deal.

Nobody seems to care about Bonds. Hank won’t make an effort to be present when his record falls. He’s been careful to avoid stirring the pot but you can tell he doesn’t respect the way Bonds has played the game. Bud Selig is begging off as well. The commissioner of Major League Baseball doesn’t want to be around when a record that stood for nearly 40 years falls. They aren’t alone. That says a lot about the kind of guy Bonds is. Steroids or not, he’s a jerk and nobody likes to see jerks do well.